Virtual reality is usually talked about in breathless tones, both by gamers and by many of us in the press. It’s a new, exciting way to play games, and it’s absolutely brimming with promise. It could be the next big thing. The third big headset, the PlayStation VR, has arrived, and all the big players are on the scene.
What we most often forget to address as we talk about it, though, is how accessible virtual reality is – in just about every sense of the word. And that is, more than anything, going to keep it out of all but a very small number of homes. Price, complexity, physical ability, and physical space are all going to make it difficult to sell the concept to many gamers.
Let’s assume for this that we’re talking about someone who has already been sold on the promise of virtual reality and is excited enough to try to make it work.
First, they have to have a lot of money. At minimum, you’ll need a compatible smartphone and the gear to mount it to your head. Even if you’re going for the bare minimum, you’ll still likely be spending something like $500 to own a compatible phone and headset. If you want to get a dedicated virtual reality device – Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or PlayStation VR – the cost skyrockets.
A PlayStation and PSVR, with the necessary PlayStation Eye and Move controllers, will run you just short of $1000. The PlayStation 4 Slim is $299, and a bundle with the PSVR and accessories starts at $499. Without those accessories, the PSVR is just a movie screen, so the $399 price doesn’t tell the full story.
The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, meanwhile, cost $599 and $799 respectively. Oculus recently announced a collaboration with AMD and CyberPower to bring $500 VR-ready PCs to market, which lowers the bar a little bit, but you’re still talking about $1100 minimum.
In other words, you’re either making virtual reality your main hobby, or you have a lot of money lying around – which most people don’t. Even a game console, which is still a luxury item, has a variety of uses that makes it an acceptable purchase in much the same way as a smartphone, but a VR headset is just for virtual reality entertainment. The percentage of the population that has that kind of scratch lying around is tiny.
Assuming you can afford it, getting it set up will require its own set of limitations, though most users can get through that part with enough time and determination.
Now we get to the tougher stuff.
To use VR, you have to be a standard-issue human. That is to say, you have all the parts humans are expected to have, and they all work as expected. Companies like Naughty Dog and Bungie have taken big strides in making their games more accessible to more players, but VR requires that you have a full range of motion with your head, use of both of your hands for most applications, and for a large portion, the ability to stand.
Most gamers fulfill most of those requirements, but there’s still a good portion of us that are simply barred from virtual reality by virtue of its very nature. Thoughtful manufacturers and game designers may, in time, be able to mitigate many of those requirements, but it won’t happen overnight if it happens at all.
Finally, that brings us to space, the final frontier.
This might be the most difficult aspect for virtual reality tech to deal with. This basic requirement of virtual reality almost shows us on its own that, in case we didn’t already know, it’s an American invention. Few places aside from the United States have houses as big as we do here.
The HTC Vive, for example, requires a minimum of about 3 x 6 feet of dedicated floor space, while some games require 8 x 8 or more. The PSVR requires the least space, as most PSVR games let you stay seated, but Sony still suggests a 10 x 10 space for play, and each of these is going to have a minimum distance from the accompanying camera that works consistently and doesn’t lose tracking during play.
Many of us are going to have to move around couches and other furniture to play games in virtual reality. Even things like lighting and reflective surfaces, such as picture frames, can interfere with the PSVR. To play VR, many of us will have to make it look like we’re getting to move to another house to simply play. And sometimes I can barely bring myself to pick up my controller.
That, of course, assumes you have enough room at all.
If you live in American suburbia, such a requirement might not be entirely unreasonable, but for those of us that dwell in apartments or live in even first-world nations like Japan and the UK that tend to have smaller dwellings, it’s right-out. Even in America, people are, on average, living in smaller homes in the last few years.
None of this is to say that virtual reality isn’t magical. My short time with Rez was enchanting, and Robo Recall looks like every action movie fantasy I’ve ever had coming true.
There’s potential there, but those projections analysts are making seem, to me, to leave out some very real limitations with virtual reality, some of which are difficult or impossible to change. The cost to get started and the varied complexity of setup affect everyone. The physical requirements to play probably affect more people than we might initially think of. And those space requirements? They could keep VR not only from becoming mainstream but from even making it outside of the United States in any meaningful way.
If subsequent hardware generations can lower the price significantly, and developers can find more ways around the physical requirements, it’ll make a difference. But that space limitation, that’s a tough hurdle that VR might never be able to jump.